WASHINGTON -- Two American soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in Afghanistan on Wednesday when a B-52 bomber missed its target. The friendly-fire accident produced the worst U.S. casualty toll of the war.
An unknown number of opposition fighters also died in the incident north of the last Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan. That is where opposition forces are trying to overthrow the besieged former rulers of the country.
The munition was a 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb called JDAM, or Joint Direct Attack Munition -- and was meant to hit Taliban troops, Lapan said.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush "regrets the loss of life and wishes the injured a full and speedy recovery."
"Our thoughts and prayers are going out to them and to their families," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told a Pentagon briefing. "And it just underscores what we don't say often enough around here -- that every single day there are men and women willing to put their necks on the line and put themselves in grave danger, and we appreciate what they do."
The troops were hit when a B-52 flying a bombing raid dropped a bomb "in close proximity to friendly forces," said a Pentagon statement.
Two main groups of anti-Taliban forces are pressing toward Kandahar as recently deployed Marines operate within striking distance to the south of the city.
The opposition forces included those of Hamid Karzai, who has just been named head of the provisional government in Afghanistan. It was unclear whether Karzai was among those hit, Clarke said.
Some casualties were evacuated to a Marine base in southern Afghanistan for transfer to another, undisclosed, medical facility and others went directly to the facility, said Capt. Stewart Upton, a public affairs officer at the base. About 20 Afghan troops were treated at the Marines' base, he said.
The deaths bring to three the number of Americans killed inside Afghanistan in the two-month war. CIA paramilitary Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed Nov. 25 in a prisoner uprising while questioning forces captured in the fighting.
Five U.S. soldiers were seriously wounded when another JDAM bomb went astray while warplanes were helping put down the uprising in which Spann was killed.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has pointed out in recent days that the United States has entered a more dangerous phase in the war to root out the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.
"It is a very complicated, untidy circumstance, and it makes it a dangerous and difficult task," Rumsfeld said Tuesday of fighting around the country.
The base where the casualties were taken is temporary home for some 1,300 U.S. Marines, along with British and Australians, and was set up about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar to put more pressure on Taliban holding out in the city. Rumsfeld said the Marines probably would not be involved in attacking the city, but are blocking Taliban forces from leaving or entering Kandahar.
Some of the American casualties included special operations soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 5th Special Forces Group, said a spokesman at Fort Bragg, N.C., headquarters for all Army special forces.
The names of the killed and wounded were being withheld pending notification of their families.
The Pentagon said an investigation was under way. Clarke said she didn't know whether the troops hit had called in the strike. It also was unclear whether those on the ground had called in incorrect coordinates; the coordinates were entered incorrectly into the bomb delivery system by the bomber; or whether the weapon malfunctioned, Lapan said.
American troops have been on the ground in Afghanistan for weeks to help forces fighting the Taliban militia, giving them weapons, food and other supplies. They also have been helping call in airstrikes, pinpointing targets for U.S. warplanes.
American planes have been bombing Kandahar to help anti-Taliban attackers, while Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has instructed his followers not to surrender.
The United States is focusing its bombing on Kandahar and the mountainous area near the Khyber Pass south of Jalalabad, where it is believed bin Laden and his top lieutenants are hiding in a complex of caves and tunnels.
In addition to Spann, four Americans, all military personnel, have been killed in connection with the fighting in Afghanistan. All died in accidents outside the country, two in a helicopter crash in Pakistan.
The Pentagon said a U.S. soldier was wounded in the fighting near Kandahar Tuesday. The special forces soldier was shot under the collarbone, but his injuries were not life-threatening, defense officials said. The soldier was working with one of the anti-Taliban groups surrounding Kandahar, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The wounded soldier was evacuated from Afghanistan and was in stable condition at a military hospital, a U.S. Central Command statement said.
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